The Iceland Experience

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

We just came back from another trip to Iceland. And, we can’t wait to go back again. What an amazing county. Full of landscapes that take your breath away, awesome history, and wonderful people.

Having always been a bit obsessed with Scottish culture, I never gave much thought to Iceland or the Vikings. Frankly, I wasn’t that interested in Viking reenactment, clothing, or culture. I mean come on – what is there to know about Vikings? Another warrior culture that raped and pillaged. WRONG!!

Far_TravelerPrior to our initial trip to Iceland in the Fall of 2014, I had the chance to read some interesting books about Icelandic history. First, I became intrigued by the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown. Ms. Brown explores the Greenlanders saga, in particular the story of Gudrid, and the archeological evidence that supports the Viking colonization of Greenland and North America (L’anse aux Meadows). I was truly intrigued by this woman’s experience.

Then there is the fiber. Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a bit of a fiber geek. (I’ll never forget my friend Emilysue (aka Mistress Amelie d’Anjou) handing me a drop spindle during a car road trip and saying “Here. You need to learn to spin!” Thank you, Emilysue – I love it and haven’t looked back!)

Woven into the EarthIceland is famous for its spinning and weaving. In fact, you can’t write a book about Iceland and its people, without recognizing that the entire economy (in the middle ages and even today) was built on sheep and wool. Gudrid and the Icelandic women that came before and after her, spent their entire lives weaving cloth for not only their own clothes, but for export to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. The book Woven Into the Earth by Else Ostergaard examines the textile finds from medieval Norse settlements in Greenland. The wool, while less soft and fine as some of the wool produced in Europe, was exceedingly unique and warm with the outer and inner layer of the fleece processed together to produce fabric that was water repellent, warm, and breathable.

IMG_1953During our most recent trip to Iceland we had the pleasure of visiting The Settlement Museum (also called Reykjavik 871 +2 for the earliest excavated portion of the exhibit) which houses the actual archeological site of the oldest human habitation found in Iceland. Discovered in 2001, the site includes remnants of a longhouse which dates to approximately 930 to 1000 AD, as well as the remains of a wall which dates to 871 AD, roughly the estimated time of the settlement of Iceland. In addition to the buildings, archeologists also discovered various tools and implements, including wool processing implements, axes, and farming equipment. The beauty of this archeological site is that it strongly supports the Icelandic historic documents, the Book of the Icelanders and the Book of Settlements, which maintain that Iceland was settled in the 9th century.

The wool-related relics discovered on-site are exciting and include weights for warp-weighted looms, as well as spindle whorls. One whorl in particular has a runic inscription which states: “Vilborg owns me”. This is one of only a handful of runic inscriptions discovered on archeological finds.

“Vilborg owns me” is inscribed in runic script on this spindle whorl.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is a Celtic connection to Iceland. In short, the answer is yes. We know, of course that Viking raiders regularly took Scottish and Icelandic captives. (There is the story of Melkorka from the Laxdæla saga, as well as the tales of Thorfinn Karlsefni, the husband of Gudrid and father to Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first recorded European child born in North America. Thorfinn Karlsefni was a direct descendant of Cerball mac Dúnlainge, King of Ireland.) But even stronger evidence for an Irish/Scottish connection exists in the archeological record. The Book of Icelanders claims that the first Norse settlers encountered Celtic monks. And archaeological remains from around 800 AD, from a Celtic monastic settlement have been found at Kverkarhellir cave, on the Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. At the site, crosses consistent with the Hiberno-Scottish style have been carved in the wall of a nearby cave. Finally, we know from genetic testing that the majority of female Icelandic settlers (62%) came from the British Isles.

So perhaps, my Scottish roots do connect somehow to Iceland…